Last updated on August 24th, 2017
The following post is this author’s opinion and does not reflect the thoughts and feelings of Fextralife as a whole nor the individual content creators associated with the site. Any link that goes outside of Fextralife are owned by their respective authors. This is the first of a three-part series of articles analyzing the Dark Souls games. Part II will analyze the soulsian genre and part III will discuss the philosophy of Dark Souls. You can check out the author’s profile to find them.
A lot has been said about the “Dark Souls” design and I’ll try my best not to rehash arguments that have already been presented. I’ll analyze each component under a broader lens, regarding the series as a whole. I’ll compare its entries to each other, regarding each individual component. And then, once we have a clear picture of what makes Dark Souls tick, we’ll take a look at how these games fit within its action RPG genre.
So, without further ado…
Level Design (Designing with Intent)
Every design decision in Dark Souls seems to have been done very deliberately, and level design is no exception. Despite first impressions, from a gameplay perspective, you rarely feel lost. First, yes, you don’t always know exactly where any given path will take you and, quite frankly, that’s the whole point of exploration but you always have at least one clear path to follow. You’re never stuck with nowhere to go.
Second, you often get glimpses of your objective in the distance giving you a general sense of direction. We all have heard that Dark Souls “level design” being praised by its use of verticality, but I think that’s a bit shallow, in that it makes it sound like a novelty for novelty’s sake when, in fact, it’s so much more. It’s cool, yes, but it’s also a major factor for this overall sense of direction. The maze-like maps bend over themselves, intertwining paths and interconnecting areas, which makes it very difficult to tell which way is which, at times, but up is always up and down is always down. And finally, it usually does a very good job of letting you know you’re on the right path or signaling that there might be something else over there.
Moving past pure gameplay, one of the hallmarks of good level design is the ability to integrate narrative. FromSoftware leverages this ability quite brilliantly and in more than just a few occasions. Item placement is often used to connect characters, locations, and timelines. Verticality is used to convey feelings as we traverse the world and also to imply the power structure between factions. Nothing feels out of place and when it does, it’s always on purpose.
Dark Souls 1 makes the best use of level design, in my opinion. From the get-go, it does a better job than its counterparts, by starting in a prison, since a clear goal is set right from the beginning: escape. That not only sets the immediate goal of escaping from the asylum but it also provides a strong incentive to pursue the long-term end-goal by connecting it to the fable of the chosen undead. There’s the sense of empowerment when you ring the first bell, the oppressive dread as you descend into the depths to ring the second one, the soul lifting relieve of the ascension back to the surface, and the paranoid desperation when you realize that your precious safe-place has been desecrated…
You’re never thrown into an alienating world without a proper transition. Darkroot Garden would be an exception to this but that area is meant to represent a pocket of reality lost in time so, I believe it was deliberate.
The Depths is the only place where it’s easy to feel lost, but that is a place where greedy men lose themselves. If you can overcome the urge to loot and explore, it’s actually quite easy to go from beginning to end.
Sen’s Fortress can sometimes give a similar feeling but you’re never really lost in there. You always know where you have to go, it’s only a matter of finding the path to it. The house of traps is a puzzle waiting to be unlocked. Every door, lever, and elevator in The Duke’s Archives feel like a well-kept secret. Anor Londo’s revelation is breathtaking, it really feels like you have reached the city of the gods. And you go around Anor Londo just as much as you go through it, almost like a thief, as an indication that you simply do not belong. Both true dragons are magical and otherworldly. Nito is a threat waiting in the dark. Priscilla lingers in a place of overwhelming sadness…
Every level design decision is intent on guiding both our feelings and understanding of the world. And they all speak to each other, weaving a truly coherent world that would otherwise just feel broken. Even Izalith, which is often bashed by arguments of poor level design, is representative of this factor. Lack of verticality is due to the fact that they are literally and figuratively at the bottom of the world. That along with the overtly open and simplistic design, I believe, is meant to infer a hidden utopia. Inside their society, they are all equal and free to come and go as they please.
All this ingenuity, unfortunately, would not be seen again.
Dark Souls 2 has some good set pieces. Coming upon the Dragon Aerie, in particular, stands out above the rest. The fog area in Shaded Woods was really interesting and so was the trail of breadcrumbs left by Vendrick, as he locked away the Throne of Want and fled his own castle. But that’s as much praise as I can give it. Compared to its predecessor, the level design is filled with branching dead ends and disjointed worlds. There’s a good experience to be had in each of these areas but they all feel really self-contained. Also, it sometimes feels like you’re moving forward in a corridor, without even knowing where it is that you’re supposed to be going. It feels like you’re just stumbling through the game.
Dark Souls 3‘s level design seems to have taken a backseat to the lore. The game feels rather small and linear, the layout seems more pragmatic than inventive, and like Dark Souls 2, it feels fragmented as well. But even though I think the game is somewhat diminished by it, I also believe that these decisions were taken based on its lore. As we have seen at the end of the age of fire, the world really is getting smaller, made of fragments that are coming together. And unlike before, the protagonist isn’t searching for a goal, he was created specifically for one particular goal. He is driven by it and driven towards it. We are unkindled.
As you can see, level design suffered a dent in these last two entries of the series. Dark Souls 3 also has way too many bonfires and one trade that clearly didn’t pay off was the ability to warp around. They have given us a very convenient tool but lost a very important tool themselves. This feels particularly detrimental to Dark Souls 3, considering that the alternative of waiting to get the ability to warp around, wouldn’t feel so harsh, given its smaller scope. It would fit the lore of the unkindled moving forward to reach its goal. And they already have a mechanic in place to bring us back, by having Emma teleport us to Lothric once we’ve gathered the cinders of all the Lords.
Storytelling (Plot is Overrated)
Tom Abernathy once said at GDC, “plot is highly overrated.” His quote has been taken out of context before and I strongly recommend you watch the whole talk here if you have the time. But for what it’s worth, he might have been describing Dark Souls when he said that. And that’s not to say that plot isn’t important or that Dark Souls doesn’t have a plot, quite the contrary, but they have moved the plot out of the way of gameplay. By giving us room to enjoy the game without actively trying to work out the plot as we play it, they have also given us the opportunity to take in a much larger story than they would otherwise have been able to tell and at our own pace. They understand that no cutscene could ever match our imagination and that those “aha!” moments of discovery will stick with us, long after we have put our controllers down.
Some staples of Dark Souls’ storytelling include the fabled item descriptions, NPC arcs, and environmental storytelling. Combined, they were able to weave a sprawling, intricate story that extends through millennia. Dark Souls isn’t the first nor the only one to play by these rules. Rules that represent an evolution of the old adages of “convey, don’t describe” and “show, don’t tell,” now, “play, don’t show.” Unfortunately, most of the industry doesn’t seem to realize that by fighting this, they are fighting the strengths of their own medium. And like I said, Dark Souls ain’t the first, and it ain’t the only one, but if it can’t be the father, then it sure as hell is the godfather of environmental storytelling. Which is also a part of the level design but is being covered separately, given its very specific application.
In all these techniques, Dark Souls 2 seems more simplistic and straightforward, suffering from the same problems as before, crafting individual stories that don’t necessarily play off of each other. Story through level design is lacking, NPCs feel one dimensional and without agency, and I feel like they did a good job of crafting the lore for various kingdoms but, again, they all feel very cut off.
The first Dark Souls, on the other hand, was very proficient at it. NPCs feel alive, the world guides our feelings and tells its own tale, and all the many parts of its story feel connected, one way or another. The only complaint that I would make is that it felt like something was just… missing from the story. I know that all the important bits and pieces were there, really, but I believe that at the time, they simply hadn’t perfected their methods yet.
Which brings us to Dark Souls 3. And storytelling is where this entry really shines. Some NPCs go through their own arcs in its entirety. Actively acting upon the resolution of their own fates; Eygon, Hawkwood, Anri… And Gael! The components used to tell Gaels’ story are very minimalistic. We hardly have any interactions with him and still, they were able to construct a story that is powerful, moving, and complete. Partly due to the fact that it mirrors our own, and we are able to project our own story into it. In this entry, they truly have perfected environmental storytelling. The world is full of details and every single one of them is a thread in the lore. You see a bookcase and I see lore. A broken coiled sword, doggy Frampt statue? It’s lore. You see a shield-in-a-box (Spirit Tree Crest Shield)? I see ingenious item placement. That is goddamn lore.
Lothric Castle, for example, is a masterpiece! Item descriptions set the pieces, and level design places them on a chess board. Not a single line of dialogue is necessary to describe, in minute detail, its current standstill and the prior battle that took place on its grounds. It’s just… beautiful.
Fanservice is used to hide lore in plain sight. There are tales within tales, as with Farron and Gundyr. And lastly, this entry finally fully explores something that was introduced in Dark Souls 2: the synergy between its own lore and the pre-existing one. If you’ve only played this one game, then you’re like one of its characters. You understand the story of the world around you, sure. But, in fact, you really don’t. Where Dark Souls 2 was content on telling a separate story, Dark Souls 3 manages to tell a story of its own that, when combined with Dark Souls 1, changes into a completely new story. Even veteran players fall for this trap and fail to see the truth. But if you keep this in mind, you’ll see. You’ll see…
Themes (“Toolset” Mindset)
The themes explored by these games are very deeply woven into its fabric. Every other aspect of the game is consistently built upon them, and they serve to connect its many components. The more pertinent themes throughout the series are: history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes; we don’t matter, except we do, except we don’t; nothing is what it seems; and, of course, challenge. More than just game design, the challenge really is one of the game’s themes. Ask any non-initiated player what Dark Souls is about and they’ll more likely than not, tell you that “it’s hard.”
But more than just a theme, challenge is a tool. It’s the hook that draws in players into an action RPG, without realizing that they’re entering a very philosophical conversation with its developers. The game is hard and the world is harsh. You commit to it and as you play, you start to absorb the other themes. Its cyclical nature mirrored in the First Flame, the spiraling level design, the empires built upon each other, and the recurrent bosses and character archetypes.
The insignificance of your humble beginnings, the power creep of your inevitable growth, and the heart-wrenching realization that no matter how grand your deeds may seem, this world is ultimately indifferent… and its cycles will keep on turning.
The hollowing obsession with the “truth”, thwarted at every turn by revelations that undermine your perception of reality. And where Dark Souls really sets itself apart from the other games, is in how these themes are implemented. Just like the challenge, they are all tools. They move the plot and the conversation forward; and the game itself, I believe, is also a tool used to teach the player about its overarching philosophy. And it does that in a very efficient way since, instead of just telling us about it, it forces us to live it.
Now, Dark Souls 2, again, takes a more blunt approach to it. And in my humble opinion, they kind of actually missed the spot regarding the original philosophy of the game. They also seem to have forgotten to use the themes as tools, rather than dressing. Dark Souls 1 and 3 are on par with each other. The former establishes what the philosophy of the game should be and the latter doubles down on it. On and on, both games instill the need to ponder about these ideas and the player feels compelled, even if only on an unconscious level, to ruminate about his own life. And I’ll ask you to set this philosophy aside for now since it warrants a post of its own, and will have to be discussed on another day.
So, those are the components that make Dark Souls what it is, but there’s one facet of Dark Souls that I’ve never seen being explicitly discussed, and that’s the fact that it seamlessly brings together an entire host of different genres. “Seamlessly” being a keyword here. Other RPGs, especially open world games, try to do the same but fall short. All their many parts feel like they were thrown together without any regard for the whole and the end result is often a basket of semi-developed, incompatible ideas. The following are the “Games” within the game:
It’s a Horror Game
The most primal fears are the unknown and death, and Dark Souls thrives on both. It’s just a game, you know you’re safe and yet, here, death has weight. There’s no effort to sugarcoat it. “You died.” These are your enemies, these are the rules. They play by the same rules as you, you can defeat them. “You died.” This is a boss, these are the rules. “You died.” You can defeat him. “You died”.
Dark Souls is the kind of game where you either commit to it or you give the fuck up! You commit to it because they make sure to show you that you can beat the game. It’s up to you. But then you die, over and over again. You lose your progress, you lose your souls, you lose even more progress trying to retrieve your souls. You face up against that one boss and you died. You know you can do it but you died. You got his pattern but you died. And at some point, you start thinking “maybe I can’t.” And that is what you really fear.
It’s just a game, you know you’re safe and yet, in every death, there in-lies the real threat, the threat of defeat.
The unknown also plays a big role here. You feel compelled to plunge into it, with the looming dread that whatever terrible thing may have happened here, you might be next. You struggle on, grasping at straws, trying to piece everything together. Trying to make some sense. They entice you with just enough information to make it feel like you can do it, just to see it slipping through your hands. And then, one day, that’s it, you beat the game. It’s over! But you still don’t know. It’s an itch, it’s just an itch. But if you’ve committed yourself to the game then the game is definitely not over. You’ll play it in your head and that itch, that itch will make you hollow.
Where in most RPGs you get to play as a character that was created for you, in Dark Souls you truly play as your own character. Other games let you choose your appearance, your gameplay style, a few branching choices… but at best, it’s just a more nuanced version of choosing between paragon and renegade. The blank slate of the Dark Souls’ protagonist and the open ended nature of the limitless interpretations of its lore and themes allow you to craft an experience that is “unique to you”, and you alone. The events play out in the game but the story unfolds inside your head. And, yes, it would be great to see a game where every action is a choice and every choice translates in-game and every choice has limitless possibilities and consequences… but that just seems unreachable right now. So, until we get to that, I think Dark Souls is the closest we get to a true role playing experience.
PVP also gives you the chance to express yourself. In most other games you’re either aggressive or passive, a team player or a douche bag. In other games, you help others for the loot or the xp. When you help people in Dark Souls, there’s no loot, or skins, or banners. You can do it for ranking up in the covenant or to gain levels but those exhaust themselves pretty quickly and still, people keep doing it, just to praise the sun! There’s no leaderboard, you fight for the sake of fighting.
You can invade to kill, wreak havoc, or both. You can even change your mind after invading and decide to let them be or even help them. You can be a blunt instrument or a trickster. You can be honorable and, yes, you can be a douche bag. Dark Souls PvP can test your skills, your wits, and in true Dark Souls fashion, it will test your resolve. They are going to spam the shit out of everything that can be spammed!
“Do you have the skill to defeat them and the resolve to keep your gold?” They are going to gank you, that’s a fact. “Do you have what it takes to outsmart them!?” “The resolve to invade again?” “Do you intentionally open yourself up for invasions, so that you can challenge them?” “Can you stand your host repeatedly dying? To the same boss! Over and over again!?” “Do you give up or do you PRAISE THE SUUUN??“
It’s a Social Game
Well, kind of. Even though this isn’t the focus of the game, the interactions you have with other players actually matter, they have an impact that is missing from most games where interaction is possible. The usual experience has you going in blind with a random group of players to complete a raid or a co-op mission of some sort, and even though the missions and bosses and enemies are sometimes memorable, the people you take with you are not.
In Dark Souls, there’s always that one guy who kills your entire party single-handed, that one troll we couldn’t see coming or the troll who gets trolled, the sense of gratitude when one particular group of random sunbros decides to stick with you after so many had bailed, the one sunbro that saved you from three invaders… when you have this kind of interactions, you remember the people more so than you remember the game.
The Meta Game
The meta matters more in Dark Souls than in most other games. Where in most games the meta is limited to “How do I play this game?”, in Dark Souls it is incorporated by the message system (“try finger, but hole”) and extends to the need of the community for the understanding of the lore. It is also an extension of one underlying theme of the game. We’re all alone, nothing you do matters, except we’re not and yes it does.
A True Detective Game
It’s a spiral of madness. Detective games have you finding the glowing item, or following the glowing trail, or exhausting the dialogue options… If you want to know the truth about Dark Souls you’re gonna have to get out there and look for clues on your own. They won’t tell you where to look, they won’t tell you if what you found is a clue or not.
Information is always missing and some of it is straight out misleading. You have to build your own real-life network of informants and allies. You have to build your case from the ground up and in the end, there’s no pop-up “mission complete” message. The jury may even agree with you but all you have is a theory and a better detective can always prove you wrong.
Its “Lore” is a Game
It can be a shallow adventure, an exploration of characters, a deep commentary on fundamental philosophical questions, and a tool of introspection.
Traversing the lore of this game really is a game on its own.
Does Dark Souls have action RPG elements to it? Yes. Is that genre befitting of Dark Souls?
Dark Souls is quite the masterpiece, even among its peers, that it became its own genre: “Soulsian“. In linguistics, we say that “usage dictates meaning” and it’s about time we start dictating what a Dark Souls game should be called. We should not accept that Steam, Wikipedia, or any other outlet define it by anything less than what it is, …for Dark Souls, is not, an action RPG after all.
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